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Why Africans are falling in love with the Philippines

18 Jan

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After recent visits to Africa and Asia, it is clear to me that the two continents are growing ever closer. In Ghana, I met so many Chinese, whether overseeing a building site in Kumasi, dining in a five star hotel on Cape Coast or playing roulette in an Accra casino. In Côte d’Ivoire, I found young people to be obsessed with Japanese manga and Korean horror films. During that same trip, I heard that, in Southern Africa, kids rarely miss an episode of their favourite telenovellas from the Philippines.

A few months later, I was in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and surprised to find Africans everywhere: Kenyans, Nigerians, South Africans, Egyptians, Moroccans, and Senegalese. I had lived in Manila in 2009-10 and couldn’t recall seeing a single African at that time, although I did meet a number of Filipino intellectuals who loved the novels of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and other African literary luminaries.

Underlying this cultural exchange is economics. According to Bloomberg, trade between Africa and Asia is set to rise from around $300bn at present to over $1.5 trillion by 2020. Already thousands are migrating in both directions for work, study and travel. Now the third fastest-growing economy in Asia, the Philippines has enjoyed an almost 50% increase in trade with Africa over the last two years. In the 2010 census, 2,573 people from African countries were resident in the country and now the figure is thought to be closer to 3,000.

While in Manila, I wanted to understand how African expats take to Philippine society. What sort of work do they do? How well have they assimilated? What are the differences and similarities between where they have come from and where they are now?

Japhet E. Miano Kariuki is a Kenyan consultant who encourages foreign investment in the Philippines. I asked him what professional opportunities there are for Africans here:

“When recruiters look to my continent, they see a wealth of underused talent: guys with master’s degrees in business or engineering except they’re driving a taxi! It makes sense to bring them to the Philippines where everyone will benefit from their expertise. The recent growth in business process outsourcing (BPO) here has created a demand for French speakers, so now you have people coming from all the Francophone African nations.”

But isn’t there the danger of brain-drain, with Africa losing the skilled workers it so badly needs for its own development? Japhet thinks not, especially if you look at the evidence of the continent’s “amazing growth. In Kenya right now, there is a new government and a new constitution, and a lot of new investment. My friends tell me that if I went back to Nairobi now, I wouldn’t recognise it.”

Furthermore, migrant labour is a two-way street. “There are many OFWs [Overseas Filipino Workers] who go to Africa with transferable skills related to the main industries there: health care, the service sector, mining and agriculture.”

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Doing business

Moreover, Japhet advises a growing number of Filipino companies about doing business in Africa. His job is easy because “China and Japan have paved the way” and there are many similarities between Africans and Filipinos.

“We all speak English (mostly), are committed to our faith and are very family-oriented. We share an attitude to life: we stay optimistic and overcome whatever challenges when trying to integrate into Philippine life. When he moved to Manila in 2011 to manage a call centre, South African Chris Bezuidenhout immediately felt at home. The people are polite “almost to the point of pain” and take pride even in dead-end jobs and miserable living conditions. “These guys in the slums are always sweeping the areas in front of their shacks. When you look around the streets, there is not a soda can, not a cigarette butt anywhere.”

On his first New Year’s Eve in Manila, Chris took a taxi into one such slum whereupon the residents complimented the basketball jersey he was wearing and invited him to spend the night drinking wine from an empty yoghurt cup.

“That was probably the best New Year’s Eve I have ever had,” he says wistfully. “There aren’t a lot of cities around the world where a foreigner can go into a deprived area and say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ and end up partying with the locals.”

A 26-year-old Egyptian national, Yasmine Mahmoud, has had a more ambivalent experience. While she finds the Philippines “generally easy-going and inter-faith”, her Muslim beliefs have posed problems. Manila restaurant menus are dominated by pork and even meat-free dishes are typically cooked in pork fat. Fortunately, Yasmine has found a handful of eateries that will prepare her food in vegetable
oil.

However, what she calls “prejudice about Islam” has had a more significant impact. A human resources expert by training, she was once denied a job simply because of her religion. “The bosses told me that they had enough Muslims from Mindanao [a southern region of the Philippines riven with Islamist separatist tensions] and they didn’t want any more.”

She isn’t bitter about the episode because “the problem is more to do with ignorance than discrimination … When I tell people I am an Arab, they either think I am from one of the Arabian Gulf countries. I tell them I am an Egyptian, I have nothing to do with the Gulf, I only share the language with them – or they think I am a terrorist because of what they have seen on CNN.”

Mercifully, not everyone she meets is so unsympathetic. People over the age of 30 are more likely to ask her respectful questions about her background.

Japhet has been on the receiving end of such curiosity, with people wanting to touch his hair and asking him why, as an African, he speaks English. By contrast, Chris once met a taxi driver who knew a great deal about his native land. “He just started reeling off historical facts about the Boer War and the apartheid era. I thought to myself, ‘How the hell does a taxi driver know all this?’”

How do Filipino attitudes to work compare with home? When Sharon Walilika relocated from Nairobi to teach English in Manila, she found the atmosphere effervescent. “Here people like to have fun in the office – they joke and laugh – whereas back home everyone is so serious. I don’t know where we got that from – is it a British thing?”

Filipinos, she believes, are more collectively-minded too. “They all go to work together and then they all go out together afterwards. When it’s someone’s birthday or someone is leaving, everyone celebrates that in the office. It’s kind of sweet, but after a while I just wanted to go my separate way.”

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Community spirit

For Yasmine, this community spirit informs all communication within a workplace. “If an individual has an issue, it becomes everyone’s issue because employees are so close to each other. If you say something to one person and they don’t appreciate it, the message will get out to the whole team. They will respond to you as a group, even if you only addressed that one person originally. They will come and say to you, ‘We don’t like this or that.’”

Chris never ceases to be impressed by the work ethic of his employees. “In South Africa there might be a bus or taxi strike and half the labour force can’t get to work. In Manila, even while a typhoon is raging, people will come in to work wearing flip-flops and shorts and then get changed into smart clothes. That kind of dedication I put down to the fact that you’ve got a population of almost 100 million and everyone’s got a university degree, even the guys who work in McDonald’s. Everyone is so educated that competition for jobs is stiff.”

High-quality, affordable, and delivered in excellent English, Philippine education is another magnet for Africans. The BBC reports that applications for foreign student visas trebled between 2012 and 2013. Aside from teaching English, Sharon is doing a master’s degree in nursing at the Adventist University of the Philippines and finds it “really good … the teachers are friendly and easy-going. When I first came here, there were five African students and now there are dozens. It’s usually a lot cheaper to fly here and study than to do it at home.”

Similarly, Yasmine tells me about a friend – also from Egypt – who saved himself several thousand dollars by studying for his MBA in the Philippines. When I question the transferability of her nursing qualification, Sharon tells me that international standards are upheld by requiring every Kenyan who trains in the Philippines to pass local board exams before they can practise nursing back home.

Manila’s traffic jams and wild roads are infamous, and I wonder how Chris copes with riding a motorcycle here. “While the traffic looks crazy, there is actually a logic to it, a rhythm. Foreigners joke about Filipino drivers being the worst in the world. On the contrary, they are the most helpful in the world. They will move over and make room for me when I ride by. In three years, I haven’t seen a major accident in this city, only bumper bashings. The traffic doesn’t move fast enough for there to be fatalities. Nor will you ever hear people shouting or hooting their horns.”

When Sharon wants a break from the hustle of the city, she drives to the “beautiful hill station of Baguio where the temperature is cool and the air is clean”. It gives her fond childhood memories of the Rift Valley area in Kenya.

The expats I spoke to all seem very content with life in the Philippines. They enjoy a higher standard of living and are gaining invaluable professional or educational advantages. Japhet and Chris are definitely here for the long-haul. As Chris says, “originally I had a vague plan to come to Manila for a couple of years and then move on to Australia. Now I have fallen in love with this place. I would be happy to stay for another decade if not longer.” A ringing endorsement indeed.

Originally published at: http://newafricanmagazine.com/africans-falling-love-philippines/3/#sthash.jkXiXRAH.dpuf

The Man Who Nursed Mandela (originally published in the New African)

30 May

 

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Throughout his presidency, Nelson Mandela attended Johannesburg’s Park Lane Clinic where he got to know Tim Groom, a veteran nurse and anti-apartheid campaigner who is now based in the south of England. In this exclusive interview with Tom Sykes, Tim argues that Mandela the private man was every bit as wise and compassionate as Mandela the public figure.

Tom Sykes: How did you first meet President Mandela?

Tim Groom: I started working at the Park Lane Clinic in March 1991 as the Night Superintendent. One day in September that year, Mandela came in to the clinic for a check-up and some MRI scans because he was quite unwell as a result of his long spell in prison. He’d done hard labour on Robben Island – breaking rocks and that sort of thing – and had got dust inside his lungs and eyes. He had a consultation with Michael Plitt (the renowned South African respiratory doctor).

The Park Lane Clinic is essentially a mother and child hospital but it also has a small medical wing where Mandela stayed the night. I started my shift that evening and at 5:30 the following morning, a night nurse called me to say that President Mandela was wide awake. ‘I don’t know what to do about it,’ she said.

I went up and knocked on the door of his private room. I entered and said to Mandela, ‘Look, with the greatest respect Mr President, it’s half past five in the morning and you’re wide awake. Is there anything wrong? Can we get you anything?’

He replied that every morning for the last twenty-seven years he had been woken up at 6 o’clock by his warders. He had thus made a decision to get up at 5:30 each morning so that when his warders opened the door at 6, he was dressed and ready. This way he could feel he had some power over his own destiny; he would decide what he wanted to do and when he would do it, and not be at the mercy of the people who had taken away his liberty. ‘I was not responding to them,’ he told me, ‘they were responding to me.’ This was one of the most powerful things he said to me.

When I told a friend of mine about Mandela’s anecdote, he was so inspired that he changed his career and started a ‘rescripting your life’ business. Mandela’s point was that although they imprison your body they cannot imprison your mind, your thoughts, your beliefs or your emotions.

TS: Did you get to speak to him much after that?

TG: I would often sit down and have a cup of Milo with him. I remember asking ‘What are you going to do, Mr President, to sort out South Africa’s problems?’ He replied, ‘It’s not what I’m going to do, it’s what we’re all going to do.’ Again, this had a huge impact on me.

The point is, whatever he said in public he would also say in private. It also didn’t matter to him whether he was talking to a major statesman at a conference or some nurse at 5:30 in the morning. No matter who you were or what your rank was or what time of the day it was, he would communicate with you. His personal and political outlook was this: we were all equal and we are all in this together; if we all work together we can solve any problem.

TS: What was he like as a person to interact with one-to-one?

TG: Mandela was exactly the same in private as he appeared to be in public. He had unbelievable charisma. He was regal, focused and respectful towards whoever he was speaking to. At first I wondered whether this was a politician’s mask that he wore but then, the more I got to know him, the more I realised that he was a genuinely friendly and empathetic person.

Mandela’s inclusive attitude to people was based on his vision of South Africa. If you wanted to be a South African, he wanted you to be a South African. I remember going to see him one evening at 9.15 just before he went to bed. Before he retired, he would take the time to shake hands with and say goodnight to six or seven people. I was one of those people and I feel that you can’t fake that kind of respect and comradeship.

One of the main problems we had was handling the sheer number of people who wanted to see Mandela when he came to the clinic. Only his doctor and the hospital management would be informed about when he was due to visit. Then I’d suddenly get a phone call from the police saying that he’d be here in five minutes. We would notify our own security guards who would go and meet him at the front door.

He’d enter the hospital in the quickest and most secretive way possible. He’d rush straight to the lifts, go up to the second floor and then move around the back of the hospital so he wouldn’t be seen. But of course people would always see him and word would spread of his arrival. Half an hour later, when he was coming out, thousands of people would be massing both inside and outside the hospital. The lift doors would open and he’d step out into a throng of perhaps four hundred people gathered in the foyer.

Mandela would drive his security men nuts because he’d insist on meeting and shaking hands with everyone he met. It was lucky that at that time he didn’t sign autographs – that would have taken all day!

TS: Did you talk about politics much? How would you characterise Mandela’s politics?

TG: No, he was too discreet to discuss politics in much detail. He would only say things like, ‘We need to move on from the past and ignore recriminations and focus on getting the country sorted out for the future.’

I remember seeing him around the time he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and “reconciliation” was the key word. He said it was vital not to apportion blame. In those tribunals people were compelled to be honest and they told the most horrible truths, but virtually no one was punished. The only people who were punished were those who didn’t come forward and admit the wrongs they had done. Mandela believed passionately in this kind of justice.

The sense I got from talking to him about the wider political systems was that, although he was in many ways a communist, he also thought capitalism had its virtues.

TS: What were his weaknesses?

TG: Some of the problems South Africa has had since Mandela’s presidency could be blamed on, as it were, his blind spots. It’s important to understand that these weaknesses came out of conviction. He was very very loyal. He was loyal to those who didn’t necessarily share his vision of South Africa as a “rainbow nation” that welcomed all colours and creeds. He was loyal to those who were corrupt or may not have had the right skills for the job they were doing.

A lot of black South Africans in the anti-apartheid movement (and a few white activists such as myself) were disappointed when Thabo Mbeki – who had stayed in the UK sitting out much of the struggle – came to the new South Africa and was made Deputy President and then President after Mandela stepped down. For many of us, people like Mbeki had contributed very little to the campaign that Mandela led, but Mandela was nonetheless loyal to such people.

Then again, it’s hard to criticise anyone for being loyal, I think. It’s usually a positive trait. After all, Mandela had been in gaol for so long, had been cut off for so long – he couldn’t phone anyone and he couldn’t even get a newspaper. He had relied on the loyalty of others to get him through that experience. The other weakness he had was spreading himself too thin; there was just so much to do when he got out of prison and became president.

TS: What else did you talk to Mandela about?

TG: Family was a favourite topic. I’d ask him, ‘Mr President how are you feeling today?’ ‘I’m fine thank you,’ he’d reply and then ask me ‘How’s your family?’ He also liked to talk about rugby and the weather.

TS: What was his work schedule like? How did he pass his free time?

TG: He just didn’t stop! Even when he was ill in the clinic he was always having meetings. He didn’t have much time for TV, but he did read a lot of books and every single newspaper every day.

He was a man of simple tastes. Park Lane being a private clinic, we had chefs rather than cooks and the patients could order pretty much any dish they wanted. But every night the head chef would go and ask Mandela what he fancied eating and each time he’d order something really simple like chicken and rice or chicken and mielie-meal or beef stew. Meanwhile his assistants would ask for something much more luxurious such as the lobster or the smoked salmon platter!

He was a very disciplined man who followed simple rules: early to bed, early to rise, eat healthily, live frugally.

TS: How did you get to meet Mandela along with Bill Clinton?

In 2000, while working for an NGO called Habitat for Life, I attended a fundraising event at which both men were present. It was funny because Mandela had about four bodyguards whereas Clinton had a whole phalanx of secret service men and armoured cars with machine guns sticking out their backs. Mandela came on stage in one of his trademark colourful shirts, by now in his early eighties and rather unsteady on his feet. His arm was being held by Clinton and Mandela joked, ‘You haven’t come here to see an old man like me, you have come to see the young man,’ and he pointed to Clinton. The combined charisma of those two was immense. If you could have attached an electrode to them they would have been buzzing!

At Habitat for Life I also met Jimmy Carter, Rudy Giuliani and President Kenneth Kaunda. Like Mandela, Kaunda had that “man of the people” touch. When he got off the plane at Durban Airport he immediately started queuing for a bus with all the locals. He got to the ticket desk and the woman asked him what his profession was. He said, ‘I am the President of Zambia.’ The woman was pretty shocked!

TG: What did Mandela and Clinton like to talk about?

TS: A lot about the youth, what the youth could and must do to change the world for the better. They were passionate about education and how it could improve society. There’s an African concept called “ubuntu” which is about respecting the old because they know things young people do not and respecting the young because they learn and understand things that older people cannot. Both Mandela and Clinton seemed to follow this philosophy.

TS: What is Mandela’s legacy?

TG: He could only do so much as an individual. I look at him as an important symbol whose good example helped South Africa emerge from what was effectively a civil war into a period of relative peace and prosperity. Such social transformations are usually violent – look at many other parts of Africa or Northern Ireland, for example – but South Africa’s was relatively peaceful. Although some people still accuse him of being a terrorist, he renounced violence in the 1960s because he realised it could never work for the ANC.

He taught South Africans and people across the world to get up and do something about any situation that is evil and unjust.

(Originally published in the April 2014 edition of the New African: http://www.newafricanmagazine.com/)

 

Blokosso: Where Angels Dare to Tread

20 Mar

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The Ebrié tribespeople of Côte d’Ivoîre traditionally believe that the land is protected by the ghosts of their ancestors and a large pantheon of deities. Historically, ritual offerings of human blood, spider’s webs, gunpowder and alcohol were made to such figures as Nyangka, the god of the earth. Although these days tribal values have broadly been supplanted by Islam and Christianity, Ebriés still retain a healthy respect for the spirit world and its influence on the material world.

Once an important Ebrié village, now an attractive district of Côte d’Ivoîre’s capital city Abidjan, Blokosso (sometimes called Blockhauss) is widely regarded as sacred territory ruled over by the spirit of an eminent king. The power and ubiquity of this belief is such that, during the Ivoîrian Civil War, neither the rebels nor the government forces would go anywhere near Blokosso. It was a surreal sight: while the rest of Abidjan was bombed and burned, Blokosso’s hovels, churches and maquis restaurants remained intact. Death might come from a bullet, so soldiers on both sides reasoned, but a far worse fate would befall anyone who damaged the property of the sovereign in the sky.
This is not to say that Blokosso has never had its troubles. After the economic failure of the late 1980s during which the number of citizens living below the poverty line trebled, Ivoîrian politicians began to exploit ethnic and religious divisions in society. Although in the 1960s and 1970s people from Burkina Faso and other nearby countries had been invited to work on Côte d’Ivoîre’s cocoa plantations, in the 1990s laws were passed to rescind the basic rights (such as suffrage) of these migrants and their offspring. Indeed, the man who is currently the President of the nation, Alassane Ouattara, was originally barred from standing for office due to his Burkinabé extraction.
Such tensions visited Blokosso in 2001. According to a Human Rights Watch report, at least six people were killed when armed apparatchiks of the RDR party attacked the district for its apparent support of FPI leader Laurent Gbagbo, who had just won a contested presidential election. Eyewitnesses saw men with machetes cutting the throat of a Guinean café owner and locals lying on the ground, their heads smashed with boulders. It seems that for one frenzied day only, Ivoîrians stopped caring about the consequences of damaging this holy domain.

These days violence is a rare occurrence in Blokosso. Arriving there myself on an overcast July day, I find it to be a gritty yet friendly working class community, the kind of place that wealthy visitors to Abidjan never see, confined as they are to a shiny micro-world of shopping malls and deluxe hotels. Such malls and hotels are staffed by poor people – some from Blokosso – who themselves are invisible to the wealthy because they travel to and from work on buses rather than in private cars and serve behind the counter rather than buying products on the other side of it.

Other Blokossans run businesses in the district itself. Fans and refrigerators are arranged outside a shack with a corrugated iron roof, prices written in felt tip on a piece of card nailed to one of the beams. Lebanese men sell sachets of Milo hot chocolate and packs of Hollywood chewing gum through the prison-style bars of a prefab convenience store. Sheltering under big black parasols, teenagers vend mobile phone top-up cards to passers-by. Taller concrete buildings painted yellow and indigo house pharmacies and photo booths. On the roadside, women in flowing dresses carry all kinds of objects on their scarved heads: small pieces of furniture, buckets of shrimps, sacks of fruit. They take it slow and easy, never breaking a sweat.

Lucky to earn enough for food each day, life is hard for these local entrepreneurs. But rather than nurse grievances, they show solidarity with their neighbours and warmth towards outsiders. I realise that I must look like the ultimate outsider to them: a chubby, sun-burned Westerner taking notes and photos of every corner of the neighbourhood. When I go into the fine-smelling Boulangerie Sibopa de Blokosso, the owner smiles, takes a little bow and says, ‘Bonjour monsieur. Enchanté.’ As my mouth waters over hot, fresh croissants, brioche and pains au chocolat, other customers treat me with the same degree of respect. In fact, everyone else I meet in Blokosso – from kids playing football on the street to elderly passengers in a shared taxi – exhibits the kind of placid decorum that disappeared from most Western cities a long time ago.

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The mood changes as soon as the sun goes down. Taking a seat in the open-air, speakeasy-style Sex Boss Bar (the name sounds more salacious than what actually goes on inside it), I hear the babble and the laughter grow as the men sink Flag beers and the women Smirnoff Ices. Waiters slam down bowls of steaming Sauce Claire, a slow-cooked chicken casserole that owes its rich yet tangy taste to a distinctively African spice called akpi; Sauce Graine, an aromatic stew made with palm tree grains; and cassava and plantain dumplings known as foutou.

As soon as it’s dark, the stereo starts playing a polyrhythmic Afrobeat song by Magic System, one of Côte d’Ivoîre’s biggest bands. The lyrics, so someone tells me, are about Ivoîrian men who marry European women and are shocked when they are expected to do household chores they were brought up to believe were the responsibility of females.

It isn’t long before girls in the Sex Boss Bar are bending over and shaking their behinds in a dance style called the Mapouka, which the Ivoîrian government tried to ban in 1998 in case it corrupted the youth. The Mapouka has since mutated into what the non-African world now calls “twerking”. One of the dancers grabs my sleeve and points to the floor.

‘I can’t dance,’ I protest. ‘I don’t know how.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she says. ‘Just do what you feel.’

Knowing that I’d need a lot more beer to find the courage to join her, I stay in my seat while two women in skin-tight clothing howl with joy and dance the Mapouka around me. I begin to feel like even more of an outsider, more of a square than ever before in my life. But I’m happy enough to listen to the music and watch the others do as they feel.

Early next morning, feeling a little worse for wear, I take the tugboat ferry to Blokosso across the Lagoon Ebrié. Spreading 300 kilometres across the eastern part of Côte d’Ivoîre and all the way up to the border with Ghana, the Lagoon is protected from the rough swells of the ocean by a large coastal landform. From the boat I watch the sun rise over Abidjan’s attractive skyline, its rays sparkling against the iconic Hotel Ivoîre and the ornate metalwork of Félix Houphouët-Boigny Stadium. The beauty of the sight belies the environmental damage being done to the Lagoon itself, which for time immemorial has provided Blokossans with abundant fish and seafood. As the Francophone magazine Jeune Afrique reports, wastewater, household rubbish and scrap metal are regularly dumped in the water, causing a hazardous build-up of sediment. Twenty years ago, the Lagoon was sanitary enough for people to practise watersports on it. Only the brave or foolish would dare do that now. However, in March of last year, the government decided to act. It began a collaboration with the Eco Africa NGO to clean up 125 acres of the Lagoon over the next four years. So far the project appears to have been successful.

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Once ashore at Blokosso, I breakfast in the Maquis la Pirogue des Grandes, a humble, unpainted brick restaurant serving real food to real Ivoîrians. Its locally-caught tilapia and capitain fish are charcoal grilled to perfection, dressed in garlic butter and accompanied by tomato and onion salad, attiéké (a cous-cous-like dish made from grated, fermented cassava) and alloco (fried plantain chips). The Maquis’ piѐce de resistance, though, is agouti, a field rat served in a creamy gravy that tastes like a cross between venison and suckling pig. Other kinds of bushmeat available include hedgehog, snake and jungle rabbit. Along with these traditional African delicacies, you can order French favourites that were introduced during the colonial era: rare steaks, fresh salads and juicy brochettes of snail, chicken and beef. Overall, the Maquis is doing a good job of contributing to Côte d’Ivoîre’s reputation as one Africa’s gastronomic centres.

All the dishes at the Maquis – and many other products sold in Blokosso – are surprisingly cheap compared to the more touristy areas of Abidjan. Those Ivoîrian commentators who have been complaining about the rising cost of living (some goods and services are near enough Western prices now) ought to spend some time – and some money – in Blokosso.
The colourful Fête de Generation (Generation Festival) takes place in Blokosso every August. It is a crucial rite of passage for young Ebrié men and women who must prove that their generation is qualified to lead the village into the future. In the past when the Ebriés were constantly at war with the sixty or so other tribes in the region, aspiring warriors would lead the new generation through the streets of Blokosso, overcoming obstacles such as snakes with their fighting skills and avoiding hidden traps with the assistance of shamen.

Conceptions of age and lineage are particularly important to Ebriés. In a somewhat scientific manner, each generation is sub-divided into four units: Gnando, Tchagba, Dougbo and Blessoué. Children born within fifteen years of one other belong to the same generation and are expected to treat each other as brothers and sisters whether they are blood-related or not. A generational cycle elapses after the passing of four generations (or sixty years).
The modern day Festival is more symbolic than it was in the past. After weeks of painstaking rehearsal, young Blokossans dance from one end of the district to the other, metaphorically progressing from childhood to adulthood. Men are selected as warriors according to their bravery and intelligence, but they are expected to lead the dance rather than to fight. Women put on their finest clothes and jewellery and take presents to the homes of these titular warriors.

The preoccupation with war is perhaps appropriate for a tribe that, in the eighteenth century, was violently forced out to the West African coast by the Ashanti people of what is now central Ghana. In fact, it was this ignominious defeat that gave the Ebriés their name, as it means “filthy” or “humiliated” in the Abouré language. Before that they were known, more flatteringly, as Achan, meaning “chosen ones”.

A century before the French colonisers built Abidjan, the first wave of Ebrié immigrants settled along the shores of what was soon to be known as the Lagoon Ebrié and established villages like Blokosso. Aside from fishing in the Lagoon, Ebriés became subsistence farmers, growing the sorts of plants the French would later export as lucrative cash crops: cocoa, coffee, rubber and sweet potatoes. If contemporary Ebriés are welcoming toward strangers such as me, their forebears were too. Over the years, Baoulés and Dioula tribespeople from other parts of Côte d’Ivoîre as well as Mossis from Burkina Faso have moved in to Ebrié lands and integrated peacefully with the locals.
At present, Ebriés are to be found living in and around Abidjan, the Lagoon Region and the subprefectures of Bingerville and Dabou. There are thought to be 57 Ebrié villages, 27 of them in the vicinity of the capital. Around 0.7 % of the population of Côte d’Ivoîre are Ebrié.

While the Generation Festival has always been a vital element of Ebrié identity, other facets of tribal life have changed significantly. In the early 1960s, the American sociologist William Kornblum was living in Blokosso when the community had its first ever experience of burglary committed by outsiders. “It was not the goods themselves that they missed, for these could be replaced,” Kornblum recalls. “It was a loss of a way of life, a social world, that they lamented.”

From that moment on, Blokosso could no longer regard itself as an isolated fishing village based on clan ties and communitarian principles. In a short time it had been swallowed up by a vast modern city driven by relentless commerce and technology. Ebriés were suddenly under pressure to buy consumer goods and sell their produce at Abidjan’s markets. Hitherto unknown concepts such as greed, envy and profligacy infected the community. There were more incidents of robbery. Monsieur Joseph, a community leader who was despairing over his wives’ jealousy of one another’s possessions, led prayers to ancestral spirits asking for help in confronting this scary new world.

Whether these prayers were answered or not, the attitude of Ebriés ever since has been one of acceptance and adaptation. They now tend to work in the service sector rather than in fishing and agriculture, and have witnessed the palm forests and plantations around them morph into business centres, apartment blocks and chic restaurants. They have stepped into modernity, but they have not lost sight of the past.

The Fairground of Abidjan: A Nation Within a Hotel (originally published in New African)

14 Feb

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Even on a bleak day during the West African rainy season, the modernist main tower of the Hôtel Ivoîre casts a luminous white reflection across the surface of the Lagoon Ébrié. At another angle, the tower throws a dark shadow over Blokosso, a village that survived the recent civil war unscathed because both sides believed it was protected by magic.

The Hôtel Ivoîre is itself a kind of reflection or shadow, albeit in a different sense. Over its fifty year existence, it has been profoundly shaped by some of the most significant events and personalities in the history of Côte d’Ivoîre. Many of the nation’s hopes, dreams, fears, contradictions and conflicts have played out in one way or another in the building that V.S. Naipaul described as the ‘fairground of Abidjan’.

My tour of the hotel begins outside the large French windows of the restaurant. I am joined by my friend and photographer C.A.R., an Ivoîrienne and an authority on her own country. Our guide is the Communications Manager of the Hôtel Ivoîre, Zaid Batoul. She is a small and bubbly Moroccan lady.

Naipaul’s fairground metaphor starts to make sense when I look around me and see various opportunities for hedonism. The largest casino in the country is here, thatch-roofed like a tribal hut. Later on it will be full of upper-crust Ivoîrians playing blackjack and roulette with Chinese engineers and Lebanese entrepreneurs (there are currently 130,000 Lebanese resident in Côte d’Ivoîre). Two guests sit drinking cocktails beside a lake-sized swimming pool, ignoring the pitiful weather. Zaid points up at a cross-shaped appendage to the top of the main tower. This, she says, is the Roof of Abidjan, a stylish restaurant run by a French master chef and frequented by pop stars, supermodels and politicians.

Noticing a statue of a ram’s head on one bank of the swimming pool, a different connotation of fairground springs to my mind. The hotel’s architecture already feels like a fairground ride: by turns beguiling, amusing and confusing.

C.A.R. suggests one reason for the confusion: almost every brick of the Hôtel Ivoîre is invested with a complex symbolism that can be hard for an outsider to grasp. ‘So what does the ram’s head symbolise?’ I ask her.

‘”Boigny” means “ram”,’ she replies.

It is impossible to discuss the Hôtel Ivoîre without reference to its founder, the first President of the Republic, Félix Houphouët-Boigny (1905-1993), and his belief in what some might call magic and others might call the power of symbols over the collective unconscious of an entire society. Zaid leads us to an edifice that resembles a tortoise. Apparently Houphouët’s intention here was to reassure his people that, while the nation’s progress may be slow, it is also steady. Next to that is a curvilinear, Henry Moore-esque sculpture of a telephone that is supposed to reflect the nation’s modernity and avant-garde perspective. In times of trouble Ivoîrians can, metaphorically, “phone” the future to find out what lies in store for them. As we go inside the hotel, we pass model doves and ceremonial masks from every tribe in the country: reminders of the virtues of peace and racial tolerance.

The potency of a symbol depends upon its referent being at least partly truthful. The above examples are no exception. After gaining independence in 1960, Côte d’Ivoîre took an unusual path for a post-colonial African nation. Its economy modernised quickly and grew at a First World rate, the standard of living soared and social relations stayed harmonious. More unusual still, “Le Vieux” (“the Old Man”) as Ivoîrians nicknamed Houphouët, set up a Western European-style welfare state that brought free healthcare and education to the most deprived. According to Faustin Toha’s book Houphouët-Boigny in One Hundred Thoughts, the Old Man said ‘racial discrimination is painful and appalling … for our dignity’ and invited immigrants to work in the coffee and cocoa plantations that formed the backbone of Ivoîrian prosperity. For four decades, Ivoîrians regarded themselves as one big happy family and the Old Man as their old man, the father of the nation. Whenever Houphouët met one of his children he would ask them, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ When the request was for money he would tell one of his treasury ministers to handle it. Towards the end of his life, Houphouët set up a peace prize in his name, so proud was he of gaining independence without a shot being fired and, after that, avoiding the kinds of internal conflicts that have blighted Côte d’Ivoîre’s neighbours.

This was the cheerful narrative that Houphouët wanted the Hotel Ivoîre to tell. Many would argue that the truth is more ambiguous than that. Houphouët’s enlightened policies came at a cost to democracy: he banned opposition parties until almost thirty years into his presidency. Indeed, it has been said that Houphouët’s increasing autocracy and paranoia in old age incited the civil war that followed his death. If he was generous to the nation he was also generous to himself, his personal fortune amounting to $9 billion. His “economic miracle” was soured by his sycophancy towards foreign corporations: they were allowed to send 90% of their profits home and pay a pittance for Côte d’Ivoîre’s exports. His penchant for peace rings less true when we consider how he aided brutal right-wing coups in Ghana and Burkina Faso. He may have been a fan of science and technology, but he was also a deeply superstitious man who performed pagan rituals and consulted feticheurs (clairvoyants). The Ivoîrian writer Venance Konan tells of a rumour that Houphouët used to feed albinos to his pet crocodiles. Albinos have long been persecuted in Africa due to their perceived association with witchcraft. Another rumour is that Houphouët drank albinos’ blood in the hope that he would acquire some of their spiritual puissance. If any of this is true, it would seem that Houphouët was a little selective in his definition of discrimination.

The rationalist soothsayer. The social democratic dictator. The anti-albino anti-racist. The pacifist who fought proxy wars. These may seem like epic, insoluble contradictions to Westerners, though not so often to Africans. Besides, we are often more shocked by the contradictions of other cultures than we are by the contradictions of our own. As my friend Jacques, an Ivoîrian scientist who lived in the UK for sixteen years, says, ‘Tony Blair said he was a man of God, peace and unity. Then he started an illegal war that killed many more people than Houphouët ever did.’

Zaid leads me to the reception over which silver lamps hang, their images mirrored in the sparkling marble floors. We flick through the Hôtel Ivoîre’s bulky guestbook and spot some famous African names: Nelson Mandela, the first recipient of the Houphouët Peace Prize; Winnie Mandela; Léopold Senghor, the great poet-president of Senegal; Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Shaka Zulu. There is also the lavish, looping signature of Michael Jackson, who stayed here while visiting his ancestral village on the Ghana-Côte d’Ivoîre border. While there, he offended Ivoîrians by wearing a mask over his nose. They thought he objected to the smell of the place, but Jackson insisted that the mask alleviated an illness. Although I don’t see their signatures, Zaid assures me that Jackson’s musical confrѐres Barry White and Stevie Wonder also stayed here.

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Perhaps the most important figure in the history of Ivoîrian music, Lougah François, moved into a luxury suite in the Hotel Ivoîre when he made it big in the 1980s. He soon blew his fortune on high living and natty leather suits. The latter vice is common amongst Francophone Africans, particularly certain Congolese who spend so much on clothes that they end up hungry and homeless, yet remain dapper. François’ profligacy was so legendary that you now sometimes hear one Ivoîrian warn another: ‘You’re spending your money like Lougah François.’ Similar to Houphouët, François was affectionately known as ‘Papa National’ (‘Father of the Nation’) so it may be appropriate that he died in 1997 just as Côte d’Ivoîre’s belle époque was giving way to civil war.

The Hôtel Ivoîre found itself in the middle of the fighting and fast went out of business. It quickly fell into decay, and the fairground became a junkyard. The ciphers for a bright future were replaced by the dystopian images of a JG Ballard novel: drained swimming pools, graffiti-stained walls, dishevelled prostitutes. In 2003 the hotel was taken over by Kalashnikov-toting supporters of Laurent Gbagbo, a jingoistic demagogue who is now on trial for war crimes at the Hague.

We take the elevator up to the Presidential Suite, which is filled with black leather furniture, and go on to the balcony. Under a smear of fog, a funeral procession winds past lean-to shops and two-storey shacks. This is Blokosso, a village believed to be overseen by a supernatural king who lives in a nearby tree. Anyone who threatens Blokosso risks provoking the wrath of the king. For this reason, both sides in the civil war gave it a wide berth. While all around the rockets were falling and the soldiers were looting homes, Blokosso remained untouched.

‘So you see,’ says Zaid, ‘a kind of magic was at work after all.’

‘Or rather,’ I reply, ‘enough people believed Blokosso was magical and left it alone. A self-fulfilling prophecy.’

‘Maybe,’ she smiles.

We crane our necks and look down into the hotel grounds. Here an incident took place ensuring that the 9th November 2004 would be remembered as the worst day of the Hôtel Ivoîre’s life. A crowd was gathering, angry about the destruction of Côte d’Ivoîre’s tiny air force by the French contingent of the UN mission in the country. Exactly what happened next remains contentious to this day. An Ivoîrian eyewitness, Colonel Guiai Bi Poin, claims that French soldiers stationed on a balcony fired on the unarmed protestors without warning. The French say they acted in self-defence against armed militants. That seven people – all Ivoîrians – were killed is perhaps the only point everyone can agree on. Some commentators raised doubts about the French version of events when their general in charge of the operation was quietly suspended some months after the fracas.

What the journalists Stéphane Haumant and Jérome Pin have described as “Black Tuesday” was the nadir in France’s convoluted relationship with Côte d’Ivoîre, likened by my friend Jacques to a mother who cannot accept that her child has grown up and left home. Fifty years after independence, France still exerts huge influence over so many aspects of Ivoîrian life. Restaurants everywhere – including the Hôtel Ivoîre’s – serve brochettes, poisson braisé, saucisson and jus d’orange. Most TV channels you watch are run by Canal Plus, the French national broadcaster. Any mall you go to is packed with quintessentially French brands. Many Ivoîrians – C.A.R. included – are so committed to French that they have never learned a native African language. They holiday in Paris and copy the latest Parisian fashions. As children they read Asterix and Lucky Luke comics, and grow up into Balzac, Proust and Gide. Côte d’Ivoîre’s political, legal and educational systems are high-resolution copies of the Gallic originals. I have travelled all over the postcolonial world and no nation in it – not even India, which was dominated by a foreign empire for five times as long as Côte d’Ivoîre was – retains such a close bond with its former master. That is not to say Côte d’Ivoîre doesn’t have its own vivaciously indigenous culture – especially with regard to food, literature, music, art – it is just that France’s shadow, like the Hôtel Ivoîre’s, is long and conspicuous.

As the three of us pass a framed photo of Charles De Gaulle in the corridor, I ask C.A.R. why the French are so embedded in her country.

‘You white men want to control everything,’ she winks.

The British historian Basil Davidson concurs. After the horror of the Algerian War of Independence during which over a million mostly Algerians were killed, the French public had little appetite for more of the same. Thus, as the clamour for freedom in French West Africa grew, De Gaulle visited Côte d’Ivoîre and offered independence with a great many strings attached. This way, according to Davidson, “France was able to retain a tight financial and even military control, a control that was going to endure for many years into the future.” Houphouët was France’s man to lead this transition because he’d been a member of the French parliament and broadly supported French interests in Africa. The French didn’t seem to mind that, earlier on in his career, he’d led an anti-colonialist farm workers’ union, been hated by landowners for his “un-French” attitudes and campaigned energetically against la corvée, the system of forced labour that was abolished as late as 1946. But two decades on Houphouët was content to hand over Côte d’Ivoîre’s security to French troops and much of its economy to French companies. He even went as far as to construct an emergency tunnel between his palace and the French Embassy.

An ironic outcome of Côte d’Ivoîre’s unconditional love for Maman Francaise was that a number of young Ivoîrian men – amongst them Jacques’ father – signed up to fight for the French Army as it tried to suppress liberation movements elsewhere in the empire. By the time he retired, Silue Sr had seen action against revolutionary nationalists in Algeria and Vietnam. His reward for such loyal service was French citizenship.

But while Jacques’ father may have been invited to the new multicultural France, such generosity hasn’t always been extended to Jacques himself, even though he holds a French passport. After he started working for the EU as an adviser on pollution, he went into his bank one day and found that he couldn’t access his first month’s pay. When he asked for an explanation, his bank manager had assumed that any black man earning 4000 Euros a month had to be a drug dealer or worse.

When I tell C.A.R. about this, she isn’t as shocked as I expect her to be. Her mother suffered from the same kind of prejudice when she visited Paris and tried to convert her hard-earned West African Francs into Euros.

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Our tour ends in the lobby lounge. C.A.R. and I cross the velvet carpets and sit down on holy-white chairs. Zaid points to a psychedelic photo of smiling tribespeople taken by Paul Sika, a local boy who trained in London and now exhibits in New York’s most prestigious galleries. A well-groomed Malagasy barman brings us rich macaroons and drinking chocolate: the tastiest by-products of cocoa, which remains Côte d’Ivoîre’s main resource. I feel as if we are in the eye of the PR storm Sofitel has conjured up to sell the assets of both the hotel and of the country. ‘We are just trying to carry on with Houphouët’s vision,’ says Zaid in parting. I wonder if Côte d’Ivoîre’s next fifty years will be as lively as its last, and what fate has in store for the Fairground of Abidjan.

(Originally published in New African, December 2013)